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April 11, 2016

City delays update of design review program

Journal Staff Reporter

A Seattle City Council committee has put plans to update the design review program on the back burner.

The program evaluates the appearance of proposed buildings and assesses how well they will fit in with their surroundings. The city reviews most designs for multifamily, commercial and mixed-use projects.

Last year the City Council commissioned a study of the program in response to concerns from developers and the public.

“The program is over 20 years old,” said Lisa Rutzick, who manages the design review program. “There haven't been any changes to its structure over that time.”

In general, developers want the process to be more consistent, predictable and timely, while the public wants more opportunity to give input about proposed buildings.

In March, the city issued recommendations for changing the program, and the public comment period closed last Friday. More than 100 people have used an online survey form to comment.

The City Council's Planning, Land Use and Zoning Committee got a briefing on the recommendations last week.

After the briefing, committee chair Rob Johnson said he'd like to “pump the brakes” on making changes until at least mid-2017, after the city has tackled other issues.

Seattle is updating its 20-year comprehensive plan, which guides decisions on where to locate new jobs, housing and public infrastructure. It's also considering land use changes to allow more housing, based on last year's report from the Housing Affordability and Livability Agenda Committee.

“So I'm hesitant to take (design review changes) up with the possibility of then having us go through those two processes, then decide that we've got a whole different set of goals and objectives that we want to accomplish as a result,” Johnson said.

The city had five broad recommendations for changing design review:

• Community engagement: Either encourage or require applicants to inform neighbors about projects at early stages of design, and throughout the permitting process.

• Set design review thresholds based on project characteristics: Large, complex developments would go through formal design review, but reviews of simpler projects would be briefer.

• New tools and techniques: This would include recording meetings, making better use of online tools, and providing more training for board members and staff.

• Change the composition and structure of the boards: This would help make decisions more consistent. The number of boards could be reduced from seven to five, and the number of reviewers on each board could be increased.

• Update design review thresholds: Decisions about whether to hold reviews would be based on new criteria, such as total square footage instead of the number of units. These criteria would apply uniformly to all development, instead of by zone, as they are today.

The recommendations were based on the work of a 16-member advisory group made up of architects, project applicants and community members, as well as input from the public. Information also came from other peer cities, such as Portland.

“We're looking for areas of improvement, how we could do things better” for applicants and the public, Rutzick said. “We want to encourage the best urban design and architecture for the city we can achieve.”

Though any major changes are on hold for now, a few could go into effect early.

Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez suggested at last week's committee meeting that the community engagement recommendations could get a test drive as a pilot project.


Jon Silver can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.

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